Orkney Isles, Scotland


ORKNEY ISLANDS, a group forming, with that of SHETLAND, a maritime county, in the northern extremity of Scotland. They are bounded on the north by the waters which divide Orkney from Shetland; on the east by the North Sea; on the south by the Pentland Firth, which separates the isles from Caithness; and on the west by the Atlantic Ocean. They lie between 58° 44' and 59° 24' (N. Lat.) and 2° 25' and 3° 20' (W. Long.), and extend about fifty miles in length and nearly thirty miles in breadth; comprising an area of 235 square miles, or 150,000 acres; 6325 houses, of which 6181 are inhabited; and containing a population of 30,507, of whom 13,831 are males and 16,676 females. These islands, anciently the Orcades, most probably derived that name from Cape Orcas, opposite to which they are situated, and which is noticed by Ptolemy as a remarkable promontory on the Caithness coast: it is supposed that the isles were originally peopled from Caithness. The Orkney and the Shetland Islands appear to have been explored by the Romans, who, however, retained no permanent possession of either; and they were both subsequently occupied by the Picts, a Scandinavian tribe who, settling at first in the Western Isles, soon spread themselves over the greater portion of Scotland. Under the Picts, the islands of Orkney seem to have been governed by a succession of petty kings, that exercised a kind of independent sovereignty till the year 876. At that period Harold Harfager, King of Norway, landing here with a powerful force, reduced them to his dominion; and on his return to Norway, he appointed Ronald, a Norwegian earl, to be their governor, whom he invested with the title of Earl of Orkney, and under whose successors they remained for many generations, as an appendage of the crown of Norway, till the reign of James III., since which time they have formed part of the kingdom of Scotland.

The first Earls of Orkney under the kings of Scotland were the St. Clairs, from whom the earldom reverted to the crown; and the lands, for nearly a century, were leased to various tenants. Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1564, granted a charter of the crown territory to Lord Robert Stewart. On her marriage with the Earl of Bothwell, she revoked this gift in favour of the earl, whom she had engaged to create Duke of Orkney: he never, however, obtained possession; and the dukedom was forfeited, Lord Robert Stewart afterwards became Earl of Orkney, but on the second earl's being brought to the scaffold in 1615, the islands again came to the crown. In 1707 they were mortgaged to the Earl of Morton; and the mortgage being subsequently declared irredeemable, the rights of the islands were in 1766 sold by the then Earl of Morton to Sir Laurence Dundas, ancestor of the Earl of Zetland. In 1814 it was calculated that the family drew annually from the ancient earldom of Orkney £2187 in money and produce, in addition to their large private estates in the isles. For many ages, lands in these islands were held by what was called Udal tenure. They were exempt from all taxes to the crown, and the proprietor acknowledged no superior lord; at the death of the father, the property was equally divided among all the children; and no fines were levied on entrance. Under the later earls, however, this system of tenure, which was supposed to be adverse to their interest, was gradually discouraged; and on the last annexation to the crown, it was wholly discontinued.

Transcribed from Samuel Lewis' A Topographical Dictionary of Scotland, 1851
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